Gary K. Clabaugh

Emeritus Professor, La Salle University

Much deference is paid to the need for “multiculturalism” in the public school. How else, ask the disciples, can educators promote a sense of empowerment and worth in all? 

True enough. But that does not change the fact that groups, be they tribes, religions or nations often benefit at another group’s cost. For instance, when Israel gains more land for settlements, they necessarily do so at Palestinian expense. Russian leadership wants control of territory that’s Ukrainian? They try to take it by force. It’s a zero sum game. There is only so much desirable land. Demand far exceeds the supply.

Consider the arrival of Europeans to America. As they won control of territory, native-Americans lost it. The state of Georgia provides a vivid example. This land was originally inhabited by Cherokees and other native-American tribes, but European-American’s coveted it. This resulted in the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the subsequent Trail of Tears. That’s when the U.S. Congress, with urging and backing from President Andrew Jackson, forced Native-Americans to trek some 850 miles to Oklahoma in the dead of winter, leaving a trail of tears and corpses behind them. It was ethnic cleansing. The very thing for which we now rebuke other nations.

It’s this kind of zero sum game that defines multiculturalism’s limits. Why? Because it is difficult to honor, another group’s culture when your gain sits atop their loss. The winners can only grant token recognition to the losers without risking a measure of control. Columbus Day becomes Indigenous People Day only long after any and all risk of the original inhabitants recovering their land has fled. Many of the displacers even begrudge the name change.

Here is this reality revealed in the multi-cultural classroom? An E.S.O.L. tutor for the School District of Philadelphia was helping a Haitian-American fourth grader write a book report. The book was required to be about an American “minority achiever.”

The Haitian-American girl chose a biography of Crazy Horse. The Sioux chief who co-led the annihilation of Custer’s command.
The tutor doubted that the massacre of Custer and his entire command was the sort of “minority achievement” the assigning teacher had in mind.

The report format required students to describe the particular accomplishments of their “minority achiever.” So the tutor asked the young lady what Crazy Horse’s had achieved? Well, for one thing she admired his courage. In battle with other Indians, Crazy Horse’s bravery had been so remarkable that his original name, “His Looking Horse,” was changed by tribal acclimation to “Crazy Horse.” But the accomplishment she most admired was that Crazy Horse led courageous resistance to white encroachment on the Black Hills. This was a region the Sioux regarded as sacred and which, in a solemn treaty (1868) European-Americans promised to the Sioux “…for as long as grass should grow and water flow.[1] That promise, the Haitian-American girl emphasized, was made before the discovery of the “…yellow metal that makes the Wasichus (white man) crazy.”[2]

The report format also required students to imagine they could sit down with the “minority achiever” and ask him or her any question. So the tutor queried, “What would you ask Crazy Horse?”” The girl said she wanted to ask him why, before the arrival of the white man, he had warred upon and killed so many other Indians. 

That gets us back to our original point. Material resources are limited and groups urgently compete for them. Crazy Horse warred upon and killed other Native-Americans for exactly the same reasons European-Americans warred upon and killed Indians. To grab another culture’s resources.

White lust for Black Hills gold is little different from the Lakota’s lust for another tribe’s hunting grounds, horses and women. And had native Americans regarded gold as valuable, they would have competed for that as well. Black Elk even said: “Our people knew there was yellow metal in little chunks up there; but did not bother with it, because it was not good for anything.”[3] 

The difficulty the Lakota’s had with whites wasn’t that whites were unusually evil, blood thirsty or covetous. It was that whites were many times more efficient at grabbing what they wanted. The Indians weren’t more noble. They simply were less capable of successful aggression.

Admittedly, European-Americans turned out to be graceless winners. They did not even grant Native-Americans citizenship until 1926. They even forced their children into government schools and attempted to make them into ersatz, second-class whites. And they certainly will never give back Native-American lands. In fact, ethnic cleansing remained the general order of the day until it was completed.  As Black Elk observed: “My people’s dream died in bloody snow.” (He was referring to the U.S. Army’s particularly repellent final massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee.)

No matter how “multicultural” educators try to recognize and celebrate Native-American culture, we will always be the ones who murdered their dream in order to realize ours. No amount of pious multi-cultural mewing can white-wash this. Moreover, competition among cultures for limited resources will persist  “…for as long as grass should grow and water flow.” Therein lies the carbuncle that pains multiculturalism both in school or out.  


[1]John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, (New York: Pocket Books, 1959) p. 66